Lead pipe replacement can’t wait any longer

Water coming out of a kitchen faucet into a glass cup

As politicians in Washington debate the specifics of infrastructure, across the country, families are crying out for action. Our aging infrastructure is failing our communities — putting lives, livelihoods and public health at risk. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, crumbling and aging lead pipes are not a political issue, they’re a health emergency.

Benton Harbor is a predominantly Black city that tells a story of the three emergencies dangerously coming to a head — environmental racism, an infrastructure crisis and an economic recession. The town’s water system, like many others across the country is maintained by the city, which is faced with lead-lined water pipes far past the age of retirement. Recent testing has found dangerously high lead levels in the town’s water supply, a sobering reminder of the emergency that many residents in Flint are still facing.

The dangerous effects of lead pipes have been well documented, particularly in children and babies where lead buildup can damage their central nervous systems, their hearing and stunt their development for life. In adults, toxic lead can lead to kidney, reproductive, cardiovascular and other health issues. A study from the Environmental Defense Fund found that for every line of lead piping replaced, we could see $22,000 in reduced deaths from cardiovascular disease alone.

The federal government’s threshold for taking action is when lead is detected at a level above 15 parts per billion. In Benton Harbor, some homes have tested as high as 889 parts per billion. To right this injustice, advocacy groups have filed an emergency petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demonstrating that dangerous levels of lead have been reported for the last three straight years. Given the severity of Benton Harbor’s lead exposure, it is clear the community cannot wait for weeks of debate in Washington. But it can serve as a model for how we can use infrastructure legislation to fight environmental injustices and ensure that all Americans have access to the basic right of safe drinking water.

When President Biden outlined the bipartisan infrastructure framework, he set the goal of replacing every lead drinking water line in the nation. We should start in places like Benton Harbor: Throughout the city, activists, families and local public health officials have come together to sound the alarm on a crisis quietly flowing in many of our walls. Upgrading and updating the city’s water utilities could offer a model of how we can take aging infrastructure and through investment, demonstrate a future with clean water for all cities.

In communities across the country, advocates have raised the issue of access and affordability of clean water. Water rates have continued to climb, particularly in frontline communities, and sanitation services are worst in Black and Indigenous communities. However, the issue of aging infrastructure was repeatedly raised as a public health crisis. Regulatory standards like the Clean Water Drinking Act exist, but many cities and communities fall below standards, often due to lead piping. Research has also found that the growing effects of climate change will be catastrophic for water access — particularly in communities where it is most at risk.

Dedicated funding for lead pipe replacement in the infrastructure packages is critical for communities most at risk, primarily Black, Indigenous and lower-income communities. But Americans across the country are in danger of water from lead pipes and would benefit from these investments. Every family in America should be able to trust that they can turn their tap and safely drink the water that flows from it. For too long, too many communities, predominantly Black, have not had this reassurance. An infrastructure bill that takes immediate action to replace lead pipes is not just good politics — it’s a promise of a safer future.

Mustafa Santiago Ali is vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization of the National Wildlife Federation. He previously served for 24 years at the EPA and was a founding member of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.

Tags clean water Flint water crisis Joe Biden lead pipes Mustafa Santiago Ali water access

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